What our emotional labour in medicine teaches us about leadership

The coping techniques we have gained from our medical training is invaluable in any walk of life.

The emotional labour that medicine requires is far above the average profession. Regardless of the type of leader a doctor must be, they all must demonstrate a high level of empathy to the patients they care for. Although certain leadership styles may outperform others in the short term, some would argue that no other definitive leadership style can create a sustainable environment that promotes well-being at work, consistent effectiveness, and positive organisational politics as authentic leadership.

The idea that a leader must be flawless and ‘great’ has been an unachievable goal for many managers. Studies have suggested that individuals may not be authentic in an effort to conceal their perceived inadequacies and flaws. This may also be accompanied by the idea that the leaders may believe there is a particular persona that is required for success (Fuda, and Badham, 2011). This “emotional labour” or the process by which workers are expected to manage their feelings in accordance with organizationally defined rules and guidelines (Wharton, 2009), creates an inner conflict. The relationships that are formed in this scenario create an obstacle between meaningful relationships that are required for long-term prosperity in the work place.

There has been a push towards the idea of the incomplete leader in all areas of literature. It is argued that the leaders attempt to be the all knowing individual in fact is a detriment to the team they lead. They fail to know when to allow others to take on responsibility and give in to the natural progression through the greatness of its individual members. This is a call for a more authentic leader in organisations and a more distributive style of leadership (Ancona, et al 2007).

The debriefing process after traumatic events and circumstances that require a high level of emotional labour is an important one. It allows members of the team to be authentic in their communication. They have a chance to express their true emotion. The benefits of being authentic far outweigh the burden of constantly hiding behind a different identity. It has been found that individuals can sense the incongruence in a leaders personality when they are not being authentic (Fuda and Badham, 2011). The fact is leaders cannot succeed on their own and require other individuals to distribute the requirements to fulfil the organisations objectives. Hence, an effective support team can be built around a leader’s authenticity. At times of uncertainty, assistance can be easily requested and the overall achievements of the company will be felt throughout the company.


Wharton, A.S., 2000, The Sociology of Emotional Labour, Annual Review of Sociology, 35, pp.147-165

Deal, T. and Key, M. (1998), Celebration at Work: Play, Purpose and Profit at Work, Berrett-Koehler, New York, NY.

George, B, Sims, P, McLean, N and Mayer, D., 2007, Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, Harvard Business Review, Feb., pp.129-138